The Playwrights Horizons presentation “I Was Most Alive With You,” as written by Craig Lucas and directed by Tyne Rafaeli, is very much geared to the hearing impaired. Not only is there signing, but each actor also has a “shadow” actor moving about on a tier above the stage and not just signing, but projecting emotionally as if really performing the role. In addition, a deaf character’s loss of a hand figures prominently in the drama.
At first one not hearing impaired may find the double portrayals a curiosity, but one can soon be acclimated to the procedure and concentrate primarily on the prime cast members, not their shadow characters geared to those who rely upon signing.
As for the plot, it is a very complicated one, and the play gains more from the quality of the acting, which is excellent, than from the drama being intensely worked out on stage. The story that unfolds, sometimes in flashback, is laden with angst and grief, with a parallel to the suffering of Job, which is pretentiously stretching a point.
An audience may have trouble following the messy lives of the characters, but the author seems bent on crowding in as much as possible in this tale of multi-level woe. On the more youthful side, there is the gay character Knox (Russell Harvard), hearing impaired as well as having been hooked on drugs and in love with another young man, Farhad (Tad Cooley). There is special sadness when (spoiler here) Knox loses a hand in an auto accident for which Farhad assumes the blame. The play’s most poignant moments come when Knox attempts to figure out a way to still sign, and when the play reaches its grim conclusion.
As for the older folk, there is Ash (Michael Gaston), Knox’s father, who has been recovering from alcohol and drug use, and Ash’s writing partner Astrid (Marianna Bassham). They are portrayed working on scripts together. Ash’s marriage to Pleasant (Lisa Emery), has fallen apart, and Pleasant, totally wanting to sever ties, rejects Knox. The fatally ill grandmother in the setup is Lois Smith as Carla, whose friend, Mariama, is played by Gameela Wright.
The signing shadow actors include Seth Gore as Ash; Beth Applebaum as Astrid; Amelia Hensley as Pleasant; Harold Foxx as Knox; Anthony Natale as Farhad; Alexandria Wailes as Mariama, and Kalen Feeny as Carla (played by Christina Marle on the night I saw the performance).
As even the sketchy plot description indicates, so much is going on that an audience can feel overwhelmed. Playwright Lucas is trying so hard to cover so many bases involving often-clashing behavior, much of it connected to addressing the problem of deafness. But on balance the play is more admirably ambitious than successful. At Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed September 25, 2018.